Sebald – On the Natural History of Destruction (1999)

6a00d83451c36069e20168e4d15c3e970cVery likely most or even all of the VDP constituency are acquainted with the works of W. G. Sebald (1944-2001), author of “Austerlitz,” “Vertigo,” “The Rings of Saturn,” and other books celebrated for their unique style. The literary critic James Wood, writing in The New Yorker of last June 5 & 12, referred to Sebald’s writing as “mysterious, wayward… drifting melancholy… eccentric sense of playfulness,” and applied the following descriptions:

“The tone is elegiac, muffled, yet curiously intense… deeply serious and ambitious… founded a new literary form… a postmodern antiquarian… smothered, recessed diction… chains of narration… characteristic repetitive formulation…”

Sebald was a native German who at age 25 moved to England and taught at the University of East Anglia for the rest of his life. The work under review here is essentially a series of essays and ruminations on the Allied bombing of German cities during WW II. His principal objection is that many or most of the raids had no military objective but were carried out primarily, or even only, to inflict civilian casualties and misery. As a child he lived in Sonthofen, and in the book he says:

As for the air raids on Sonthofen, I remember when I was fourteen or fifteen asking the parson who taught religious education at the Oberstdorf Gymnasium how we could reconcile our ideas of divine providence with the fact that neither the barracks nor the Ordensburg had been destroyed during this air raid, only, and as if in place of them, the parish church and the church of the hospital foundation, but I do not remember what he said in reply.

And later, after setting forth detailed stories of misery and woe, which he says have not appeared in the history and literature of WW II:

That, reduced to its lowest common denominator, is the main theme of the history of postwar Germany.

And he sets forth the purpose of this book:

In any case, it is difficult to disprove the thesis that we have not yet succeeded in bringing the horrors of the air war to public attention through historical or literary accounts.

But he also forthrightly acknowledges that the Germans brought it on themselves:

The majority of Germans today know, or so at least it is to be hoped, that we actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived.

And that they practiced carpet bombing first:

This intoxicating vision of destruction coincides with the fact that the real pioneering achievements in bomb warfare–Guernica, Warsaw, Belgrade, Rotterdam–were the work of the Germans.

For those who don’t already know Sebald, I don’t recommend beginning with this book but with another more typical of his oeuvre, such as “The Rings of Saturn,” my personal favorite because it brought me to the Urn Burial of the 17th century doctor-writer Sir Thomas Browne and led me to get and read Browne’s complete works on Kindle-but that’s a review for another day.

Thomas Lemann

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